“Wow, you look so great!”
“Ugh, no I am so bloated. I feel so fat."
“What are you talking about? I wish I looked like you. You’re so skinny!”
My guess is that this conversation might sound pretty familiar. Maybe you’ve even occasionally let a comment like “I’m so fat” escape your lips or rolled your eyes when a friend commented on the size of her arms. Fat talk has become a normal part of everyday conversation, but it’s time to stop.
Fat talk seems to have two goals in mind—the first, to act as a form of social bonding, to create a bond between two or more people who have a similar sense of dissatisfaction, and the second, to have the original complaints dismissed so that the fat talker feels better about himself or herself.
But “fat talk” does not accomplish its goal. You do not feel better about yourself, despite friends who tell you you’re being ridiculous, you’re so skinny—or from knowing that your friends feel the same way about their bodies, too.
In fact, you feel worse. Fat talk is as contagious as it is toxic, and it leads to a greater sense of dissatisfaction with one’s appearance and body image.
Men fat talk too. The male fitness culture can be just as toxic as the female thinness one. But it has become so engrained in female culture that “thin” equals “perfect,” that it has become a part of the social ritual, something that women tend to repeat every day.
According to a study performed by psychologist and Northwestern University Professor Renee Engeln, 90 percent of college women engaged in fat talk, even though only 1 in 10 of them were overweight. And the phenomenon is not limited to college-aged women; women of all ages participate. That is to say, women do not “grow out of” feeling ashamed of their bodies. This is especially true at Boston College, where according to a study conducted by the university, senior females at BC report having lower self-esteem than when they entered as freshman.
The harm of fat talk has a special hold at BC—because BC has a very real culture that revolves around appearance (especially thinness), i.e., the Plex culture. Maintaining a “perfect” body is a real concern of many students, but it’s easy to let that go out of hand, to equate having the “perfect” body to being perfect.
But what does it mean to have the “perfect” body? Are these standards created by the media or just perpetuated by it? Why do we assume that thinner is better? Is there any real danger in not having a thigh gap?
Fat talk is about feeling worthless in a culture where appearance (and thinness) equals worth. The next time someone makes a comment about their weight—ask them why they are feeling that way. Dismissing the comment or chiming in with your own dissatisfaction does nothing to address the underlying feelings of worthlessness that can indicate a much larger problem of an unhealthy body image.
Consider making your personal policy “No Body Talk.” Do not make appearance a priority in your life by not focusing on it—and that includes not talking about it. Stop yourself the next time you comment on how much you ate today, or how little you worked out over break. While you can’t remove yourself from all forms of media, maybe think twice the next time you pick up that issue of Glamour or Women’s Health.
Finally, encourage each other to be healthy—but realize that health cannot be reduced to a number on a scale. Health is about taking care of yourself—body and mind—and someone who feels ashamed of their body simply cannot take care of it. Realize, importantly, that a seemingly harmless comment about your weight or appearance can actually prevent your friends from valuing their bodies enough to take care of them—and can keep you trapped in the same cycle.
Note: The Boston College Women’s Center has some fantastic resources for information regarding body image and eating disorders. Check out their website or stop in to get more information about eating disorders or to learn how you can help promote a healthy body image.
If you yourself are struggling with an unhealthy body image or disordered eating, please call University Counseling Services at (617) 552-3310 or the helpline for the National Eating Disorders Organization at (800) 931-2237.